AUGUST 22, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 30
Of course it usually makes sense to place your estate planning wishes in the hands of your lawyer to make sure documents are correctly drawn and your wishes carried out. Lawyers can be very protective of what they perceive as their clients’ wishes and best interests, and sometimes that can even get in the way. Take, for instance, the will and trust of Missouri resident William R. Knichel.
Mr. Knichel had two grown children. He also had a 20-year relationship with Anita Madsen. In 2002, shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer, he signed a new will and powers of attorney. He named his children as his agents and left his entire estate to the two of them.
At about the same time Ms. Madsen began living with — and taking care of — Mr. Knichel. Two years later, he decided that he wanted to put her in charge of his finances and leave a significant portion of his estate to her. He transferred his home and one bank account into joint tenancy with her, and named her as beneficiary on his life insurance policy.
In 2004, Mr. Knichel and Ms. Madsen made an appointment with St. Louis attorney Charles Amen, of the law firm Purcell & Amen. Mr. Amen prepared a new will and powers of attorney, and a living trust. These documents named Ms. Madsen as personal representative, agent and trustee. The trust was intended to hold Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets, and to distribute them in three equal shares to his two children and Ms. Madsen.
One unusual provision in the trust document: Mr. Amen himself was named as “special co-trustee” with some specific powers. He was to make final decisions about distributions among the beneficiaries, to decide whether any beneficiaries could challenge Ms. Madsen’s administration or distribution decisions, and act as arbitrator if any disputes did arise. Then Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen began the process of transferring Mr. Knichel’s retirement assets into the trust.
Among the accounts they tried to transfer to the trust was an IRA held at UBS Financial. For reasons not spelled out in the reported court opinion, UBS declined to change the IRA — even though Mr. Amen and Ms. Madsen made several attempts. When Mr. Knichel died a few months later, his children were still named as beneficiaries, rather than the trust.
Mr. Amen continued to work with Ms. Madsen to try to get UBS to change the beneficiary designation, but unsuccessfully. Ultimately UBS distributed the IRA account to the two children. Mr. Amen advised Ms. Madsen to simply make an equivalent distribution from the other trust assets to herself. She did that, and also paid herself a $6,000 fee as trustee and Mr. Amen’s fees of $2,400 for his representation of her as trustee.
In the three years after Mr. Knichel’s death, his children regularly requested a full accounting from Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They did not receive complete information and so, in 2007, they filed suit against Ms. Madsen and Mr. Amen. They specifically sought removal of Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, arguing that there were multiple conflicts of interest in acting in that capacity while also representing Ms. Madsen, and that Mr. Amen had breached a fiduciary duty to treat the trust’s beneficiaries impartially.
After the trial judge denied Mr. Amen’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, he withdrew as attorney form Ms. Madsen individually and as trustee. As a result of the proceedings, the court ultimately removed Ms. Madsen as trustee and Mr. Amen and his firm as special co-trustee, froze the trust’s assets and ordered Ms. Madsen to return distributions she had made to herself, her fees and the fees she had paid Mr. Amen. The Judge specifically found that Mr. Amen had breached his fiduciary duties as special co-trustee, because he had not been impartial to the three beneficiaries in his advice and representation of Ms. Madsen.
Mr. Amen appealed the finding. The Missouri Court of Appeals summarily dismissed his appeal, finding that he was not an “interested person” within the meaning of Missouri’s version of the Uniform Trust Code. He did not have a property right in (or a claim against) the trust itself, according to the appellate judges. Consequently, he had no standing to claim that the trial judge had made a mistake.
The Court of Appeals noted that this was not the first case they had heard in which members of Mr. Amen’s firm had named the firm as “special co-trustee.” In an earlier case, Mr. Amen’s partner had named the firm as “special co-trustee” in a trust for a man who was at the time the subject of a guardianship proceeding. When that man’s children dismissed their guardianship petition, Mr. Amen’s partner attempted to appeal the dismissal; the appellate court ruled in that case that he lacked standing to bring the appeal.
Though the circumstances and the legal arguments were somewhat different, the result was the same — dismissal of the appeal. The appellate court was equally unimpressed, incidentally, by Mr. Amen’s other argument — that he would be required to report the finding of breach of fiduciary duty to professional licensing boards and might get in trouble with them, too. In Matter of Knichel, August 16, 2011.
The Knichel case raises a legal question separate from Mr. Amen’s standing to appeal the finding that he breached his fiduciary duty. What is a “special co-trustee,” and what are the duties and powers of such a position?
Under Arizona’s version of the Uniform Trust Code (which is not identical to Missouri’s), the position spelled out in Mr. Amen’s trust would probably be analogous to a “trust protector,” at least to the extent that Mr. Amen’s “special co-trustee” could change the respective shares of beneficiaries. Arizona’s legislative decision to expressly limit any fiduciary duty to beneficiaries might complicate that designation and the analysis of a similar case if one were to arise in the Arizona courts.